Editorial: The story behind 'We Were Almost Home'
The heroes of Black Hawk 83-23856 were the soldiers who accompanied then-Capt. Tammy Duckworth on what had appeared to be a routine mission that Wednesday 10 years ago today -- Dan Milberg, who somehow maneuvered over a sea of trees to land the helicopter safely even after it took a grenade hit that severely damaged the flight system and blew out much of the right side of the cockpit; Milberg and gunner Matt Backues, who pulled Duckworth out of the wreckage in hostile territory; gunner Kurt Hannemann, who stood lookout in that date grove during the evacuation despite a bullet wound in his back; the crew from the sister helicopter that airlifted them all to safety.
Heroes, all of them.
Even Duckworth will tell you that. More than that, Duckworth emphasizes the point. Embracing their heroism rather than hers, in fact, seems central to her unending recovery: Had it not been for their bravery, their skill, their sense of duty, their devotion to the creed, she would not be alive today. It's as simple and as accurate as that.
Today, as she does every Nov. 12th, Duckworth celebrates her "Alive Day," but it is more than her life that she celebrates. She also celebrates her comrades with an obvious affection that is at the same time both uncommonly stoic and genuinely heartfelt. But make no mistake, Duckworth is a hero, too, in the same way that all military personnel who put themselves in harm's way are heroes, a hero in the same way that all who have sacrificed for their country and their comrades are heroes, a hero in the same way that all who have suffered heartbreaking injury with strength and perseverance are heroes. You don't have to agree with her politics to agree with that.
Duckworth, of course, rallied from her horrific war wounds, losing both legs and some use of one of her arms, to run for Congress. Last week, she was elected to her second term, and she has become a rising star in Democratic politics. Many expect her to run for the Senate in two years, and while it's too early to forecast anything, she looks for the moment like she'd be a formidable candidate if she does. Beyond that, who knows? National office may even be a possibility.
To be clear, when as the 10th anniversary of Duckworth's injury approached and our staff began developing the idea for "We Were Almost Home," Political Editor Mike Riopell's measured account of her war experience, we debated the political implications. Such a story would almost inevitably be sympathetic to Duckworth, and we worried about the political benefit we might be offering up to her.
Ironically, our course would have been much easier had she never entered politics, the way it was in 2005 when Stacy St. Clair, then one of our staff writers, visited her at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington to write about her rehabilitation.
By the same token, we realized that the account would give our readers telling glimpses into who Duckworth is and was that are seldom possible to achieve regarding a political figure, and we recognized that for the most part our readers and Duckworth's constituents are aware only that she was wounded but unaware of how it happened.
Our lone significant concession to the political implications was to schedule the account to publish after the Nov. 4 election. The coincidence of the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday and Nov. 12 as the anniversary of the assault provided a fortuitous timetable.
Our ultimate obligation, we decided, was to an accurate portrayal of the attack that left Duckworth wounded, and beyond that, to let the facts speak for themselves.
We're proud of Riopell's efforts and those of the many others involved in the editing, photography and presentation, in print and online, for this story. We hope you agree.